"Rhythm Heaven Fever” is a game for the Nintendo Wii, and one of my all-time favorites. As rhythm games go, it’s a masterclass in minimalism — there are a grand total of two possible inputs, and your ability to keep time and respond to cues is tested far more than your button-fumbling prowess.
The beauty of “Rhythm Heaven Fever” lies in the level of challenge it’s able to draw out of a simple, engaging ruleset. “Mad Rat Dead,” a cross between “Crypt of the NecroDancer” and a generic platformer seemingly destined to go forgotten, has similar qualities.
The titular Mad Rat is a (you guessed it) insane lab rat whose heart has been replaced with a sentient transplant held in a visible hole in his torso. Said transplant allows him to move quickly to the beat of each level’s song and turn back time upon death, and he uses his newfound power to go on a quest for revenge against the scientist responsible for his near-demise. Gameplay is based entirely around each song’s rhythm — scores, combos, time limits, and movement are all based around beats. When songs slow down or speed up (a wrinkle used often as the challenge builds), the speed of gameplay and the timer change with them, and actions can only be performed by pressing a button on or near a beat of the song. While this style of gameplay seems a bit unwieldy at first, it’s easy to get used to, and the ability to infinitely repeat failed sections at the cost of time makes it both accessible enough for beginners to complete the game and difficult enough for perfecting runs (necessary for getting the highest in-game grades) to be an engaging approach.
The player’s set of moves also helps: Mad Rat can only jump, dash, dive, or charge an attack, allowing a variety of moment-to-moment choices with a limited pool of options.
The soundtrack, perhaps the primary appeal of “Mad Rat Dead,” is very deliberate — each song fits its level to a T and provides a different tone and pace from the last. It’s no coincidence that the game starts with electro-swing and gradually gets more elaborate and frantic; the various composers for the game were just as involved in its progression and atmosphere as the designers and artists. Motifs recur and tempo changes abound as each distinct track creates and ties together one auditory whole, expressing the simple plot far better than the cutscenes do. Even the obnoxious tutorial song is obnoxious on purpose. The boss fights are the high points they’re meant to be specifically because they maximize their momentum and complexity through their themes. By the final boss fight, the player has to find the rhythm themselves, weaving into and out of the riffs being played and memorizing whole attack patterns exactly, yet they still feel like they’re speeding along and doing well.
The sharp, cartoonish visual style is another aspect worthy of praise. Although most of the animations are motion-tweened, they’re expressive and multi-faceted. Mad Rat’s design in particular is striking, but enemies, backgrounds, and bosses are all memorable as well. The overall air of energy and morbidity these images create makes it all the easier to get lost in the flow of levels, a phenomenon that consistently comes to the forefront, especially when replaying on Hard Mode or mixing and matching songs and stages from the stage select menu.
While it’s far from entirely original (even the questions asked of the player at points are ripped straight out of the “Ogre Battle” games), “Mad Rat Dead” has the execution and passion to make up for it. A game as replayable and fascinating as this is well worth the $40, and one more people should give a chance considering its place as a black sheep in Nippon Ichi’s catalog.
Gaget is a student in Fairbanks public schools, and has developed a number of free games. He is a neutral game reviewer.
If You Play
Platform: Nintendo Switch, PS4
Internet Usage (accounts for download size): 708 MB
ESRB Rating: T
Release Date: 10/30/20
Genre (if applicable): Rhythm-platformer
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software